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June 20, 2013

James Gandolfini: He let his characters star

NEW YORK — James Gandolfini would have hated all this fuss.

He was an actor who shrank from attention for anything but the roles he brought to life. No false modesty. He simply did his best to remain a private citizen behind his public characters. These included, of course, Tony Soprano, the fiendish, tormented mobster who the world came to know and revere as a towering dramatic achievement.

Now, out of the blue, this flood of tributes to Gandolfini upon his untimely death? This would likely have struck him as excessive and needless, upstaging for a moment his lifetime of work.

In a too-brief career that ended Wednesday at age 51 while he was vacationing in Rome, Gandolfini can be celebrated for performances on TV, on stage and in films that reached beyond the obvious triumph of “The Sopranos” and the unsought celebrity it brought him. Before, during and after “The Sopranos,” he remained defiantly a character actor, by all indications spared a leading man’s ego as he tackled roles that piqued his interest, not roles meant to guarantee the spotlight.

“I’m much more comfortable doing smaller things,” he declared not long ago. And in the past year, his film appearances included supporting (or smaller) roles in Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama bin Laden manhunt docudrama “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Sopranos” creator David Chase’s ‘60s period drama “Not Fade Away,” and Andrew Dominick’s crime flick “Killing Them Softly.”

It was all part of an acting career as unlikely to which TV has given rise.

How to account for the providential choice of Gandolfini to headline a high-profile HBO drama series playing an anguished mob boss and family man? Balding and beefy, he seemed the antithesis of an actor who could sustain viewers’ interest, amusing them, horrifying them and compelling them to love him in a way they had never loved a TV hero before.

Gandolfini made the character monstrous yet sympathetic, a man with a murderously chilling gaze yet a mischievous smile. Thus did Tony Soprano become part of the culture, taking Gandolfini, reluctantly, with him.

By the end of the series’ run, Gandolfini was suitably grateful for the role he had embodied for six seasons. But he had lent such authenticity to Tony that the character by then weighed heavily upon him. No actor stops identifying with the character he plays, no matter how repellant or villainous. An actor is required to be complicit with the man he portrays.

And yet, Gandolfini said he struggled to like Tony.

“Let’s just say, it was a lot easier to like him in the beginning, than in the last few years,” he told The Associated Press a few days before the series’ finale in June 2007.

It was a remarkable admission by Gandolfini as he looked ahead, brightly, to new challenges.   

“I don’t even think I’ve proven myself, yet,” he said. “I have yet to begin the fight, I think.”

In that rare interview, Gandolfini, famously press-shy ever since “The Sopranos” blindsided him with stardom, was as gracious as he was uncomfortable discussing himself.

There was one too many questions delving into his acting process.

“Oh, please! Who gives a crap!” he scoffed (though he didn’t say “crap”). Then he quickly apologized. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to be abrupt.”

Despite his formidable presence in person as on film, there was no confusing him with Tony Soprano. He was his own man, down-to-earth, accommodating — and no-nonsense when it counted. Once glimpsed by a reporter filming a scene on the set of the Soprano family’s plush New Jersey home, he bobbled a line of dialogue, whereupon he let out a growl, not at anyone else but directed unsparingly at himself before the cameras rolled again.

On the other hand, he clearly knew the difference between what was serious as an actor — and what was deadly serious.

Marshaling his unbidden clout as a star, Gandolfini produced (though only sparingly appeared in) a pair of documentaries for HBO focused on a cause he held dear: veterans affairs.

“Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq” (2007) profiled soldiers and Marines who had cheated death in war but continued to wage personal battles back at home. Four years later, “Wartorn: 1861-2010” charted victims of post-traumatic stress disorder from the U.S. invasion of Iraq all the way back to the Civil War.

“Do I think a documentary is going to change the world?” Gandolfini said about the latter film. “No, but I think there will be individuals who will learn things from it, so that’s enough.”

There were no grand pronouncements that day. No lofty goals voiced. No showboating by an actor who will never be forgotten as Tony Soprano, and then some, for the work he leaves behind.

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